Year B, Advent 2 December 9, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, , make his paths straight.’”
So a panda bear walks into a bar and orders a sandwich. When he is done, he pulls out a gun and fires in the air. The barman shouts, “What are you doing?” to which the panda replies, “I’m a panda, look it up,” and then runs out of the bar.
The barman Googled “panda” and what did the Wikipedia entry say? “Panda: a bear like mammal native to China with distinctive black and white markings. Eats(,) shoots and leaves.”
It’s all in the comma. If you plop a comma after eats, making it read “Eats, (comma) shoots and leaves,” that is a critically different statement than “eats shoots and leaves” (bamboo shoots and bamboo leaves). It is a clever joke and title of a funny book.
“A voice cries out: (colon) ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” So says the prophet Isaiah in his exile in Babylon.
“…the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: (colon) ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” So says St. John the Baptizer, quoting the Prophet Isaiah on the banks of the River Jordan in Roman occupied Israel.
What about that colon? Is the way of the Lord supposed to be in the wilderness, is that where the desert highway is supposed to be straightened? Or is the voice that is crying out, is it in the wilderness? Is that where the prophet is calling to us from? Are we being called to the wilderness? From the wilderness? By the wilderness? It seems a really important distinction, doesn’t it? Or does it?
What is important? That is a serious question. What is truly important? We are deluged with information, with sensory inputs, so much of it, everything moves so incredibly fast, even ourselves, traveling distances in hours that used to take months to travel. I had a professor whose area is Thai Buddhism. He made his first trip to Southeast Asia in the early 1960s as a poor graduate student, and he got there in a passenger berth on a freighter. It took him weeks to get there, and that allowed for a slow acclimation on his way to Thailand: time, climate, latitude, being outside of America. Once he became a professor, he started flying, but it always jolted him. He never felt as ready to be there as that time it took weeks to travel. All that information, the rapidity of the modern world, all human knowledge accessible in our pocket at any time… It is very hard to tell what is important.
That’s a cultural theme about Christmas. Advent hasn’t made it to the culture wars, yet, but Christmas has. Are we supposed to say seasons greetings, or happy holidays, or merry Christmas? “Jesus: the reason for the season.” You’ve seen those lawn signs. I have always felt that they were kind of passive aggressive, but at least folks are thinking about what is important this time of year. So what is important? Right now, in Advent? Right now, in this time in history? Right now in your life as it is on the 10th of December 2017? What is actually important?
It is very hard to tell what is important, it is difficult, which is unfortunate, because it is incredibly important to know what is important. One of the primary fruits of the religious life, one of the benefits or I suppose side effects of being religious can be an increased ability to discern what is important. (I suppose it can pendulum in the other direction and we can become desperately concerned with wedding cakes or regulating women’s health care, but that is another sermon). But generally, leaning in to God, opening our spirits to the world, freeing, or trying to free our bodies and minds from earthly attachments, what is important, what is important to God and thus should be to us, can become clear. Or at least clear-er.
Discerning what is important, holy prioritization, that is the charism of the prophets. That’s their purview. Most of us, when we think about prophets, think about the future, proclaiming what is to come. There is some of that, but obliquely. What they are really talking about is right now, pointing what is really happening right now, most importantly, drawing our attention to what is really most important. (And all of that has a deep impact on the future, whether we heed or ignore the prophets amongst us).
There were three Isaiahs. 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Isaiah. The writings of three different prophets were consolidated into one book. Last week we heard from Third Isaiah who was writing after his return from Babylon. First Isaiah, written by someone actually named Isaiah, was written in the southern kingdom of Judah before the exile, and Second Isaiah was written in Babylon during the exile. “Comfort, O comfort my people… A voice cries out: (colon) ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord…” These are the first lines of Second Isaiah. And they are good ones.
Second Isaiah was a prophet of the exile. He certainly had his critique: “All people are grass… the grass withers, the flower fades, when the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.” But that is not his primary message. He goes on, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” There is a deep hope shining in the prophet, hope of return, of homecoming. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom and gently lead the mother sheep.” That’s a hopeful image.
St. John the Baptist was also a prophet in the midst of turmoil. His was the Roman occupation. He was arrested and his head was later served literally on a platter due to the capricious whim of the collaborationist Herodians. His cousin was crucified by the Romans themselves. Turmoil. John had his rough edges even beyond his diet and wardrobe, “You brood of vipers!” He proclaimed. And he predicted tribulations “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” His central message, though, was hopeful. He looked forward to deliverance. He was the herald of the messiah, a savior. Could there be a greater hope?
Now all of that is important: the state of the world, the condition of humankind, hope for the future. These are extremely important things. But there is something even more important, though, something that both Second Isaiah and St. John the Baptist proclaim as the most important thing. What might that be? What was central to their message? It is right there in our reading from St. Mark’s Gospel. John came “…proclaiming a baptism of ____ repentance ______ for the forgiveness of sins.” Repentance. That is what today is about. That is what is most important.
It would be, wouldn’t it? I have a Christmas sermon, so I’ll let you off the hook for Christmas morning Mass. The sermon is that Jesus is a Christmas gift that no one actually wants, not the real Jesus. Advent is the same. We might love the peace, the quiet, the darkness, yes, but with Jesus and our seasonal feasting lights at the end of the tunnel while we are all cozied up by the fire; but the real message of Advent, what is really important is preparatio evangelica, prepare for the gospel, and to do that, we must repent.
What does it mean to repent? There are a lot of ways to understand repentance. Part of it is accounting. We need to know and admit, at least to ourselves and God, what is actually going on. Who we actually are, what we are actually up to and truly why. Think of the “Truth and Reconciliation” movement of Archbishop Tutu, or Step four, a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” That is a big step, no wonder repentance has such a bad reputation.
And that is only the first step. The second is doing something about it. Repentance means knowing what’s what and then changing your direction. Going down a different path. We all know those places where we aren’t cutting it morally or ethically or just in terms of propriety. We all have those niggles in the back of our head when you pop open that beer, or add x to your cart or send that gossipy email, snap at a spouse, child or friend. Repentance is knowing that you do that and doing something to change.
But here is where the real kicker is: yes, we need to know ourselves, and we need to change based on that knowledge, but real repentance is also an act of surrender, knowing that the changes you need to make to mind, body and soul are beyond your capacity to affect on your own. We talked about four holy truths last week. 1. We are sinners. 2. We can’t save ourselves. 3. Salvation is promised, and 4. that Way is Jesus Christ. We can’t save ourselves, we have to abandon any attempt to save ourselves. We need to repent.
Richard Rohr, the prolific Franciscan priest, writes a lot about addiction. Addiction is everywhere. Every life here has been touched by addiction in some form; family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, yourself. Breaking the cycle of addiction is as hard a thing as we can do. I am in awe of people in recovery. Fr. Rohr talks about our whole world in terms of addiction, that we, our lives, our self-perception, our vision of the nature of the world around us, our relationships, our action and inaction in the world… All of it. And he plays around with the idea of sin, original sin in particular, as addiction. We are addicted. We are addicted to ourselves, ourselves and our concerns as being the most important thing. Repentance is the act of breaking the cycle of our addiction to ourselves.
How does Second Isaiah start his prophecy? “Comfort, O comfort my people…” Petitioning God in their misery. And what is prescribed, right here in the first paragraphs? “Get up on a high mountain… lift up your voice with strength… say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” He knows people are grass, destined to wither, but that is not the end of the story, not if we surrender to God. And what better way to do that than proclaim the glory of God, and recognize the power of things beyond our capacity to ask or imagine. In praise and supplication, that addiction to the self, that narcissism that define most of our lives can begin to falter.
The Baptizer spoke of the one who was coming. “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandal.” He is who we need to watch for. “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John surrendered to his faith in this. He is calling us to surrender, too. Abandonment to divine providence, as de Caussaude calls it. That is the heart of true repentance, because it is only with accepting support of something as extravagantly encompassing as God that we can actually change. Steps 1, 2 and 3. We are powerless. There is a God. We give our lives to that God.
Repenting, surrendering to God is having faith that the powers of heaven and earth do in fact align and do in fact point in the direction each of us is supposed to be facing. There is a way it is supposed to be, a way we are supposed to be, if only we could remember what is actually important. And that is not us. Not our petty concerns and worries and anxieties. But when we do repent, when we do give it over to God, when you admit how insignificant you are in the cosmic scheme of things, this amazing thing happens. You will, when you give it over, you will know that you are in fact beloved of God. You will know, in every fiber of your being, that you are in fact in the most intimate relationship possible with the ground of all being. That you, this mote in the universe soup are of utmost concern to the root of existence, God in God’s self. That is what is most important, not where some comma or colon falls in a sentence. Not where some doctrine or dogma puts ideas over the life and light given in Jesus Christ. That is what true prophets die for to make sure we know, that you are loves, and the way to know that, in a biblical sense, is to forget yourself and love that God and your neighbor with every you have. That is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God. AMEN